Coming just two weeks after the fruitful telephone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Hanoi on April 14-16 was a bold move aimed at strengthening the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. Blinken and Trong highlighted the upward trend in the relationship since the establishment of a “comprehensive partnership” a decade ago, and reiterated the need to deepen ties further. Blinken also urged Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh to enhance economic and security ties, and extended Biden’s invitation for future high-level visits. Several analysts made the upbeat forecast that high-ranking visits in the second half of the year will see an upgrade of the relationship to a “strategic partnership.”
Over the past decade, U.S.-Vietnam relations have flourished. Economic ties have been serving as the bedrock. Since 2002, the U.S. has been Vietnam’s top export market. Bilateral trade has grown dramatically, and in 2023, it is anticipated to surpass $100 billion for the third year in a row. The Trump administration’s labeling of Vietnam as a “currency manipulator” was likewise removed by the Biden administration. Boosting economic collaboration looked promising after a group of 50 U.S. companies visited Vietnam in March in search of business opportunities.
Despite successes in the economic realm, Vietnam has so far been cautious about concluding a strategic partnership with the U.S. Many have attributed this reluctance to fear of a possible Chinese reprisal, but Hanoi’s considerations go beyond mere concerns about Beijing’s reactions. In fact, Vietnam now worries more about the internal interference by the U.S. should the two nations conclude a strategic partnership. Vietnam’s primary goals are strategic autonomy, economic growth, and the preservation of CPV rule. In safeguarding both its strategic autonomy and the security of the communist regime, Vietnam has been tenacious in fighting against perceived domestic meddling by outside forces, usually described as attempts to foment a “peaceful evolution” to subvert or threaten its authority.
By and large, Vietnam views Washington’s excessive focus on press freedom, religious freedom, and human rights as an internal intrusion and potential threat to Vietnam’s political security. Vietnam stated that it was willing to elevate ties with all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, provided that the “principles of independence, sovereignty, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, mutual respect, equal cooperation and mutual benefit are committed and strictly implemented.”
Yet, Blinken announced in November that Vietnam would be placed on a “Special Watch List” for flagrant breaches of religious freedom. Then, as part of his journey to Hanoi, Blinken went to a monastery, which acted as a subtle confirmation on that account. Considering Vietnam’s prerequisites for establishing a strategic partnership, U.S. actions and discourses on Vietnam’s human rights record obviously run against the principle of “non-interference” in Vietnam’s internal affairs.
Even worse, the Biden administration, which has claimed to place human rights at the forefront of its foreign policy, has not demonstrated any willingness to put Vietnam’s human rights record aside in order to upgrade ties. The U.S. State Department published a statement on social media just hours before Blinken’s trip to Vietnam in which it condemned the conviction of prominent Vietnamese political activist and journalist Nguyen Lan Thang, who has been recently given a prison sentence and probation by Hanoi People’s Court.
The State Department’s annual human rights report includes a section on “Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings” in Vietnam, that noted the sudden and covert death of political prisoner Nguyen Phuong Hong and three other prisoners. During his phone call with Trong in March, Biden underlined Washington’s “respect for human rights,” implying that this precept will continue to play a prominent role in U.S. policy toward Vietnam.
Vietnam’s calculations regarding a possible upgrade of ties with the U.S. may also be influenced by what it learns about how America treats its allies and strategic partners. The U.S. has enlisted the assistance of its NATO partners in Europe in order to use Ukraine as the front line in a proxy war with Russia. As a result, Washington has reaped enormous gains from selling liquefied natural gas and military weaponry to Europe, while Ukraine’s military forces were becoming depleted and its European partners’ economies were sliding further into crisis. Vietnam may therefore be concerned about this potential vulnerability if it becomes a part of Washington’s overarching plan to curb Beijing’s power and influence.
Taiwan’s experience also informs Vietnam about the U.S. strategy to utilize its allies for the purpose of weakening China. The visit of former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August, performing as a deterrence signal to China about the unabated existence of the US-Taiwan alliance, was, in fact, followed by a series of sanctions on Taiwan imposed by China. The harm done to the U.S.-China economic relationship as a result of Pelosi’s trip, however, was marginal.
Security risks are latent for American strategic partners. Most countries listed in the incumbent administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy are either situated close to China or inside the territory of the South China Sea that China has unjustly claimed. Some of them – e.g. India, Indonesia, Singapore, Mongolia, New Zealand, and most recently, Papua New Guinea – have established strategic partnerships with the U.S. and shared a trait: they have signed or are negotiating to sign a military agreement with the superpower. The U.S.’s efforts to “militarize” its strategic partners may put Vietnam at risk of a Chinese counterblow.
Even while Blinken suggested that an elevation of formal ties may occur “in the weeks and months ahead,” this would be unquestionably demanding in such a short amount of time. The door is not shut, though. Vietnam’s decision about whether to elevate relations with the U.S. hinges on how it anticipates China’s responses as well as how well Washington does in respecting Vietnam’s sovereignty and securing “equal and mutually beneficial cooperation” with the country. In his meeting with Blinken, Trong implied that Vietnam was willing to advance U.S.-Vietnam ties when he stated that he treasured and saw positive developments in the two countries’ relationship as “the foundation to bring [ties] to new heights.” Now the ball seems to be in the U.S. court.
The U.S. might also wish to take note that there are two primary factors that determine Vietnam’s willingness to elevate ties. First, Hanoi will consider the pragmatic advantages that it could gain from the upgrade, such as enhancing its ability to shield itself against China’s coercive measures in the South China Sea or bolstering its defense through the acquisition of state-of-the-art U.S. military hardware. Should the two partners come to such a military agreement, it must not go against Vietnam’s “Four Nos” policy, which prohibits joining military alliances, siding with one country against another, allowing any nation to set up military bases or use Vietnam’s territory as a means of deterrence against others, and using force or threatening to use force in international relations.
The second factor is Hanoi’s willingness to take risks. Vietnam needs assurances that the upgrade will not enrage China and prompt “retaliation” or “punishment” from its much more powerful neighbor. This could take the form of it freezing export and import activities across the countries’ borders or stepping up coercive activities in the disputed parts of the South China Sea. While recognizing the utmost importance of staying on good terms with China, Vietnamese officials must secure Beijing’s commitment, or at the very least, be able to prepare for its answers, before elevating ties with the U.S. to a strategic partnership.
In a nutshell, should bilateral ties be upgraded, Vietnam would likely frame the “strategic partnership” as the “normal” growth of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship rather than as an “alliance” formed to contain China. Amid the growing U.S.-China strategic competition, Hanoi will keep up its delicate balancing act and its long-held policy of “diversification and multilateralization of international relations” rather than completely leaning towards either China or the U.S.